Tuesday, June 5, 2012

All ya gotta do....

I recently heard someone answer a question about what they thought was necessary to "live eternally". The question is a complex one, especially since none of us have done it yet.
But I was more interested in the answer.

"All ya gotta do is become a Christian."

I've heard similar responses before. While I, of course, don't think it's a malicious answer, I also wonder if it's a very well thought-out one. But the response I have has inherent problems as well, and I haven't figured out how to resolve this yet.

My thoughts about this response, and what is represented in it, have to do with it being what seems to be an ignorant oversimplification. I'm highly suspicious when people respond to deep questions with an initial, "all ya gotta do...". But, then again, my response possibly qualifies for the oversimplification category as well.

It's said that there are somewhere between 20,000 and 35,000 Christian denominations worldwide, depending on how you delineate. These denominations are formed and informed by theological/doctrinal disagreements, the culture's influence on a particular Christian group, reactions to internal church polity, a charismatic leader that helps the masses see clearly what had been seemingly obfuscated before, and various other reasons. Even non-denominational churches are something of a denomination; existing in part in reaction to some of the felt limitations of denominationalism and setting out to be a legitimate expression of the faith along side so many thousands of others.

With this in mind, the question for the answer becomes "What kind of Christian do you gotta become?" Stating that one is a Christian begs for adjectives. I know this firsthand. Every time it comes up that I'm a pastor, I'm asked a follow up about which particular denomination. "Christian", for most people, is half an answer. It leaves unaddressed the brand in the same way saying "I eat cereal for breakfast" does.

Some may then reply, "Well, any kind of Christian, so long as you become one." But that raises issues. Such as, what about the kinds of Christians, numbered in the millions, that may disagree with your answer on the grounds that it's not a choice human beings, who possess no freewill in and of themselves, can make?
Or what about the millions who disagree on other grounds?
Or what about the Christians who think that one is a Christian only once one believes and endorses very specific doctrines that the person answering "all you gotta do..." hasn't and won't be believing and endorsing themselves?
At what point one "becomes" a Christian, or even ceases to be one, has enjoyed little consensus, ever. So, what do we mean when we say "become a Christian", and are we aware that the metrics for knowing one has become a Christian comprises a discussion (and often a debate) that predates the English word "Christian"?

It also makes me reflect: "If all I gotta do is become any kind of Christian, then why am I the kind of Christian that I am? How many of my beloved expressions and tenants of the faith are preferences, variously held and rejected by brothers and sisters of the faith around the world and through time? How often do I subtly (or overtly) judge the expression of my faith as superior, for whatever reason, to other expressions, while also saying 'any kind of Christian will do...'?"

The sheer number of denominations, now and ever, as well as the multiple (and sometimes contradictory) opinions I have held within myself about faith, should give me pause. Which is another way of saying keep me open minded. Which is another way of saying it keep me humble.

And this is where I realize my thoughts have inherent problems:
All of this drives me to want to give a better answer to questions pertaining to "entering life", "living eternally" and a host of other ways of putting it. It reminds me that, truly, Christianity isn't the point. Christ is. So the all ya gotta do centers on Christ, not Christianity. A focus on becoming a Christian, something that is nearly impossible to define, can create a very familiar human phenomenon which divides into 30-some-thousand separate movements.
Becoming a Christian as a solution fixates on the expression, rather than the Focus of the expression Himself.
This is not semantics, but a difference as vast as light and dark: Eternal life is found in Christ, not Christianity.

But what I am saying is very much open to interpretation. When I say Christ, I say it from the perspective of a wealthy, white, 2012 North Carolinian with presuppositions at work that I'll never identify. Of course, within those myriad denominations, men and women in history have said what I have said and set out to focus on Christ. But the expression of that focus came with values, then soon after rules, then all out doctrinal markers and lines in the sand for the denomination they inadvertently or deliberately began.

What do I do, and what have others done, when people pursue Christ and Christ alone, but it doesn't look like Christ to me? What do I think when someone's pursuit of Christ looks like a celebration (and isolation) for something less or other? Assume I got Christ cornered, while they missed him?

Everyone is focusing on Christ. Who ever started one of the thousands of denominations by saying "you know, let's take the focus off Jesus and make some arbitrary rules and systems instead. But we'll do it wearing these!"?

From outside of a particular method, and outside others' perception of Christ, it probably always looks like a fixation on religion.

For now, humility and love of others is the only resolution I have on this. In terms of offering a response to a question about living an eternal-quality of life, maybe it would sound something like,

"All you gotta do is follow Christ, understanding that your perception of him will be unique to you and your understanding of him in the gospels, will continue to evolve throughout your life, will be shaped by your wounds, your culture and the people important to you in the faith, as well as the quiet whisper of the Spirit himself. Your understanding of Him will nestle itself within a local expression that you will call your church, so don't forget this happens for everyone, and looks different every time. This understanding will unite you to people utterly unlike you around the world and through time, so long as you respect, mutually, that we are all doing the best we can to see the Christ past our own demands and delusions. The most tangible part of this for you will often be the expression of it, meaning that your brand of faith can accidentally get your devotion because human beings prefer maintenancing what they can control and hate trying to interact with the Mystery that is the Christ of the Church we comprise. You will naturally want to make the club the point, rather than the Reason this so-called club exists. So be on guard against arrogance and exclusionary thinking. This effort makes you what has been called a Christian. This is not a badge or a pass. It's shorthand for someone humbly seeking Christ, while they love others who are doing all this in a way that most resonates with them. That's all ya gotta do."

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